Insiders and Outsiders at Festivals

Hannah McGill

Hannah McGill is a film critic, writer and broadcaster based in Edinburgh. She covers arts and current affairs for numerous outlets, including Scotland on Sunday and Sight and Sound, and she is a regular contributor to comment and review programmes on BBC Scotland and BBC Radio 4. Between 2006 and 2010, she was the Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. She co-authored the non-fiction volume THE 21ST CENTURY NOVEL (Edinburgh University Press 2014) about contemporary publishing and authorship. In September 2017 she will commence study at Queen Margaret University for a PhD on the subject of film festival programming.

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.3

The line between “insiders” and “outsiders” is one that an arts festival must negotiate in a number of ways. The idea of a festival incorporates something that is outside the ordinary: there’s a flavour of the carnivalesque, of the overturning of expectations of everyday life, of those who are customarily “outside”—of work, of business, and of the expected order of things. And yet festivals also are businesses: even the smallest and most radical ones have to attract support, whether that is private, public, corporate, or in-kind, and have to present themselves in such a manner as to reach and appeal to audiences. And so, a perpetual tension exists regarding where arts festivals belong—inside or outside the mainstream entertainment business—and whether they speak to an already overserved cultural elite, or underserved communities of specialists and adventurers.

In order for arts festivals to exist and fill a need, they must be seen to be providing something insufficiently represented within the year-round offering of cultural institutions, whether that be special collaborations and commissions; the sheer scale of stage and audience offered at the Glastonbury festival in the UK; or films that lack prominence within standard distribution channels plus appearances by filmmakers at a film festival. There’s also community, of course—a group of likeminded people experiencing unusual access to its shared interest, often lubricated by organized opportunities for social encounters and the professional and creative opportunities it fosters.

Yet festivals must also, in order to attain prominence and support, speak the language of the arts orthodoxy: pay or somehow reward workers; adhere to laws; communicate via existing channels; operate within externally determined systems of value and celebrity and appropriateness. You would be hard-pressed to find a festival director who hasn’t found, soon into taking the job or establishing the event, that while ideas about change, innovation, and discovery go down well in interviews and are invited on funding applications, the reality of change can prove less appealing to sponsors, stakeholders, and boards who are firmly invested in the status quo. It’s a little bit like being a politician or a president who runs on a platform of revolutionary change only to find that once in the door the system has an already powerful investment in maintaining the status quo.

These gaps have arguably become all the more contested in recent times, with the rise of a political mindset that casts doubt on the authority of experts and gatekeepers. One has never had to look far to find vociferous criticism of elites who presume to tell ordinary people what’s culturally good for them, but the age of the internet, and particularly of social media as an opinion-former and news source, has amplified it to sometimes deafening levels. Festival programming never happened in a vacuum, but there’s now an increased awareness that risky programming can very quickly bring petitions, boycotts, sponsor withdrawals, and existential threats in its wake. Whether we regard this as fair accountability—democracy in action—or a new brand of mob rule, the megaphone that is social media ensures that cultural insiders and outsiders are no longer as separate as they might once have been.

For many, festivals represent a suspension of routine and of normal priorities. People who attend them or work for them usually believe passionately that these events offer some sort of better vision of what we can collectively be, not only via the promotion of art, but also through the temporary presentation of an alternative society. Anyone who’s been to a really vast festival—for me it was Glastonbury in the early 1990s, but there are so many now—may have had that mad moment of thinking what if we just carried on living like this? And yet, even an event like that can also be argued to perpetuate hierarchies and social divides; it does what it does, rich people take part and then they move on with excess arty energies discharged, often leaving a mess behind them. There was a piece that ran in the London Review of Books in 2014 about the Burning Man festival, at which well-off Americans suspend normal existence for a few days and experiment with every counter-culture freedom they can buy for $400. The writer, Emily Witt, concluded a somewhat depressing account of her experience like this:

“No wonder people hate Burning Man, I thought, when I pictured it as a cynic might: rich people on vacation breaking rules that everyone else would be made to suffer for not obeying. Many of these people would go back to their lives and back to work on the great farces of our age. They wouldn’t argue for the decriminalisation of the drugs they had used; they wouldn’t want anyone to know about their time in the orgy dome.”

Not every festival is as extreme as Burning Man – there is as yet no “orgy dome” in Edinburgh; although the Fringe needs its annual dose of scandal, so you never know. But the idea of insiders temporarily pretending to be outsiders—risk-takers, bohemians, and avant-gardists—before going back to propping up the machinery of the establishment is relevant to all cultural pursuits that claim or strive to be inclusive. The fact that the impact or function of a piece of art is near-impossible to quantify is a dilemma known to anyone who’s ever had to fill out funding applications or identify key performance objectives, but it’s all the more significant in times when cuts to the arts are deeper than ever before and fault lines between cultural elites and “ordinary working people” are ever more useful to politicians seeking to justify those cuts.

In Edinburgh, that insider–outsider status is yet more complicated because of an ambiguity regarding the extent to which Edinburgh as a festival city actually belongs to Scotland as a nation. The Edinburgh festivals are widely and justly celebrated, but they have also, for the past 70 years, plied their trade against a not inconsiderable degree of local skepticism. There is no more guaranteed big laugh in any film set in Scotland than the one that greets the sequence in Trainspotting in which the main characters set upon and rob an American tourist in Edinburgh for the Festival. Naturally there’s a class component to that scene in which reverse snobbery says that art and culture are inherently elitist and suspect. There is also the mild contempt felt by anyone who lives in a tourist destination and must endure the mass of people who descend annually in order to stand on the street in clumps pointing at things and declaring how quaint they are. But there’s also the underlying truth that the festivals in Edinburgh, ingrained as they are now into Scotland’s cultural landscape and ecology, did not emerge organically out of its indigenous culture. They were brought in from the outside.

In 1944, Rudolf Bing was seeking ways to revive the dwindling post-war fortunes of Glyndebourne Festival Opera, of which he was a co-founder. A British arts festival, which would give it an alternative platform and a source of funds, was proposed, with the accompanying ideal of using international cultural communication to help to heal the rifts and divisions of post-war Europe. Oxford, Bath, Cambridge, Chester, and Canterbury were considered but ultimately rejected. Then, Bing had dinner with Henry Harvey Wood, then the British Council’s Scottish representative, and was presented with the idea of using Edinburgh. The first Edinburgh International Festival took place 3 years later, with Fringe events springing up around it which would eventually spawn the behemoth that we know today. In the same year, the Edinburgh Film Guild, in response to the fact that the International Festival had excluded cinema from its offering, launched the Film Festival, which would expand from showing solely documentaries at its inception to embracing fiction film of all genres and origins in later decades. Over those decades, the International, or Official Festival, the Film Festival and the Fringe have been joined by numerous others: the Book Festival, the Winter Festivals including Hogmanay, the Science Festival, the Military Tattoo, the Storytelling Festival, the Imaginate children’s festival, and the Art Festival.

All human life is acted out in Edinburgh. But as with lived human life, controversy and challenges are never far away. While they may be seen as the lucky few by outsiders, these insider festivals often face their own considerable challenges: high expectations bring high costs, and a prominent public profile means unstinting openness to critique. The vulnerability of culture year-round is often a driver of criticism for events seen as occupying a position of undue privilege. For instance, Edinburgh City Council’s year-round noise regulations and licensing for music events are much more stringent compared to its flexibility where events in August are concerned. The position of Scotland within the UK is a further source of sensitivity: Sir Jonathan Mills, the former Artistic Director of the International Festival, drew some criticism for deciding that his festival in 2014 would not directly engage the Scottish independence referendum.

Opprobrium reliably attends the appointment of Festival directors who come from outwith Scotland. The removal of the UK from the European Union after the 2016 Brexit vote will cast its long shadow over 70th anniversary proceedings the summer of 2017; you can bet that the irony of the Festival having been dreamed up in the spirit of European communication and collaboration will be even more ubiquitous than Fringe jokes about deep-fried Mars bars. Meanwhile, increasing awareness of issues around diversity, privilege, authenticity, and cultural appropriation makes programming a more politicized process than ever before.

We cannot escape these issues, and nor should we seek to. They are part of the active conversation and the conflict that keeps festivals relevant. And conflict is what lies behind the standard press messaging about vision and enlightenment: conflict over what to program, how to show it, who’s going to come, how much it should cost, and who should pay. And ultimately that’s because festivals, however monolithic they can seem, are made up of people who are themselves negotiating how much of their insides they can risk putting outside for others to judge; and audience members whose inside responses might never be outwardly shared or exposed at all. Turning 70 might be seen as a time to capitulate to self-centerd thinking—we see copious criticism of the “baby boomers” born in the same post-war period as the first Edinburgh Festivals, for prioritizing their own comfort over societal change. But for some people, 70 is a time to get more daring, more radical, and less concerned with convention. The poet May Sarton wrote on turning 70, “Now I wear the inside person outside and I am more comfortable with myself. In some ways I am younger because I can admit vulnerability, and more innocent because I do not have to pretend.” That sounds like a good philosophy for any august body to embrace.

Image: By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons